top of page

The individual layperson

from the archive, 2017

So far in this strand, whose overarching theme is interfaith dialogue, we have considered how religion and peace should go hand-in-hand, and the importance of intending them to do so. We have considered approaches to managing conflict, contrasting the use of coercive and non-coercive means. We have also noted that central to the attainment of peace as unity-in diversity is the owning and harmonising of four interfaith perspectives : the exclusivist, inclusivist, relativist and universalist perspectives. Throughout the examination we have referenced ICR’s Twelve Principles, which can be found on our website.

One of those principles, the eleventh, states :

The lay or common person (in contrast to a person leading a specialised religious life) has a key role to play in highlighting what practitioners of different faith traditions have in common.

Faith traditions typically develop orders and a class of specialised religious “professionals”. Part of their role is to provide expert opinion on matters of doctrine, establishing the boundaries of what constitutes right belief. For example, Christian religious leaders define for their followers whether Jesus Christ is really present in the communion bread and wine or only symbolically present. Muslim leaders decide how the caliph - the successor to the Prophet - is to be appointed : one definition marks off the Sunni sect and one the Shia. The philosophers of the Advaita school in Hinduism have defined one basic substance in the universe; the Samkyha school defined two basic substances. Some experts within Judaism say there is a secret oral teaching that complements the Torah; other experts say there is only the written teaching. Followers are segregated, though belonging to the same faith tradition. Religious experts also establish similar boundaries to differentiate one faith tradition from another. Is their prophet the last in a line, or are there more to come? Is there one life or are there many lives? Are there many gods or one God? Can God appear in human form? What should be included in a holy book and what should not?

Would-be peacemakers should acknowledge two needs in responding to religious divisions. There is the need for honest and just explanations of why groups go their independent way - explanations that go beyond the stigmatising of heretics, apostates and infidels. There is also the need to temper the tensions by interfaith bridge-building, conducted in a spirit of goodwill.

The laity - ordinary faith adherents who are not part of the specialised religious hierarchy and who are largely concerned with worldly and temporal matters - have an important balancing role to play in affirming the commonalities shared by diverse believers. Bonds of goodwill, affection and friendship, generated in daily relationships, are the mortar of the interfaith edifice.

The same argument applies to the citizen in relation to secular authorities. Political leaders are preoccupied with staking out their ideological territory and competing for power. A great many depend on them to do just that. And we should hope and pray that our leaders act in a principled way, even as they assume and wield power. But the governed, as individuals and in their civil society groupings, play their role in evolving a political consensus. That role tends to exhibit a more experiential and collaborative approach.

ICR’s twelfth principle is relevant here : orthopraxy (right practice) precedes orthodoxy (right doctrine).

Orthodoxy or right doctrine is important, but if people are too inhibited to relate naturally to others for fear of breaching it, it can be a stumbling block to interfaith community. Truth should stand the test of own’s own experience. When orthodoxy, an intellectual construction, is not at the forefront of interfaith relations, but follows behind orthopraxy (right practice), there can be a more relaxed atmosphere conducive to bonding via the feelings and the multitude of shared common interests that characterise humanity.

People of goodwill - whether of a belief or no belief - show a remarkable degree of similarity in practically addressing the needs of a suffering world, and discharging civic responsibilities.

Witness how in public relief efforts people of varied backgrounds come together to do what is required to ameliorate suffering and loss. Kindness, helpfulness and goodwill are universally appreciated by human beings, irrespective of creed. When dealing with others at close quarters, basic human decency usually steers us away from offending and repelling, and steers us towards bonding over the things we have in common.

It is different when we formulate things from an ivory tower.

By setting a premium on ideology, and planning associations with those who formally declare allegiance to the same worldview, you could largely avoid crossing paths with others of different worldviews - if it wasn’t for one thing. They might serve you at the supermarket, or you might serve them. They transact with you commercially in the marketplace. Ride with you on public transport. Think of the interactions the “share economy” promotes. AirBnB hosts or uber drivers typically share their property and transport with people not known to them at the time of booking. A basic orientation of openness and trust obtains. This is why ordinary daily interactions foster practical cooperation between faiths in a multicultural society.

In speaking of the “individual layperson”, we reference both individuality and personality.

An individual is a unique, whole being, and a person is someone defined by their relationships and roles. If we forget we are persons, our individualism can become isolationism - a radical freedom from obligations and beholdenness to others and the community in general. But no-one is an island. Not only are you a unique choicemaker, the hero or heroine of your life; you are simultaneously someone’s son or daughter, or father or mother or sibling or relative or friend or partner. You belong to this or that fraternity, association, team, workplace, school etc. You are also the citizen of a state. The roles condition you from outside, just as your sovereign power of free will defines you from the inside.

Thus each of us is an individual person. Forgetting our personhood, we’ll end up with an abstractly skewed view of politics and religion. Forgetting our individuality, we’ll end up feeling totally at the mercy of forces beyond our control. This invalidates us as decision-makers, and leaves you and me no creative room for interfaith conflict resolution.

bottom of page